Fortunately I am allowed more than six words for “good” when writing about 1984, which returned to Chicago at Steppenwolf’s upstairs theater after an original production at Lookingglass in 2004. Andrew White’s adaptation begins with characters systematically reworking the dictionary to make less room for originality in thought. The correct words to describe this production would be “double-plus good” except in this dystopian world reviewing a theater show would be a “thought crime.”
This adaptation presents George Orwell’s novel as a horror play, complete with suspenseful music and characters screaming on their path to torture. Visual projections expand across the entire stage creating giant eyes that stare down at the actors and the audience alike. Winston Smith (Adam Poss) wakes to the scolding of an overly impassioned exercise leader (Elizabeth Birnkrant) who reminds him that he must stay healthy to be able to serve his community. Poss focuses on Smith’s weariness in the play’s early scenes as Smith performs mundane activities including riding the train, popping pills, and toasting Big Brother with the absolute minimum effort required to keep Smith from being beaten.
Young Winston Smith (Matthew Abraham) is often present in one of this production’s most creative devices. The actor stands on a ledge cut into the rest of the set. Sometimes he speaks dialogue along with Smith as the elder responds to his various challenges, and sometimes he just stares down at his older self—judging Smith for becoming a blind follower. Most terrifying are the movie-sized projected flashbacks of Smith’s mysterious interactions with his family as a child, which often occur simultaneously with other events on stage. Was Smith responsible for the disappearance of his own parents and sister? That answer never arrives, but the clarity of Smith’s guilt rattles through the audience.
From what I remember of the 2004 adaptation at Lookingglass, it was slower paced with more development on Smith in his job with the Ministry of Truth, where he changes historical documents to reflect the propaganda of Big Brother’s party. Some of these details are challenging to follow in this production, for director Hallie Gordon does not give her audience enough background regarding the three nations constantly at war: Oceana, Eurasia, and Eastasia. Yet, early confusions are easily forgotten because Gordon’s production and its lightening pace create a sense of discomfort while never reducing enjoyment. Take for example the scene where Winston and Julia (his secret lover and inspiration to rebel against the government) are surrounded by police and attacked with clubs. This scene happens so quickly after the characters have joined the rebellion that it emphasizes the hopelessness of free thought under totalitarianism.
Steppenwolf’s Theater for Young Audiences has focused primarily on productions of books that teenagers read in school (The Book Thief in 2012 was an achievement that brought Marcus Zusak from Australia as a collaborator and viewer). My hope is that Steppenwolf’s efforts will lead the way for many of these adaptations to be presented in high schools, where their large casts, relatively tame language and sexual content (compared to other modern theater works), and connections to works of literary merit will help be seen by even more high-school aged students.